View Full Version : Good gunsmithing lathe?

April 13, 2010, 04:29 PM
I think it is close to time to get a decent gunsmithing lathe. What is the recommendation? I am leary of the Far East manufacturers, but maybe they have gotten better since I last bought anything from them (1980's).

I don't mind buying used to save a buck, but don't want junk either. Where should I shop -- the local ads, eBay, or is there a new model that is cheap but good?

Harry Bonar
April 13, 2010, 05:27 PM
I have been very well satisfied with Grizzley tools and own and use a 12X36 of that brand. Their warranty is very good.
Harry B.

April 13, 2010, 08:05 PM
There is something to be said for buying a current production model (such as the Grizzly) so if or when you need parts, support, etc you will have that source.

Having said that ...When I was ready to upgrade I called every machine shop and related business in the area asking if they had used machines to sell off. I ended up with a heavy duty Summit in the size I needed for less $$ than a new Grizzly. To sweeten the deal the shop owner let me run it, then he loaded and delivered it to my shop for the purchase price

James K
April 13, 2010, 11:54 PM
I don't know what is on the market today but if at all possible buy a lathe with a hollow headstock. It is so much easier to do jobs like turning barrel threads and crowning when you can just stick the barrel in through the headstock.


April 14, 2010, 12:43 AM
I am not saying this is the best way to go.30 years ago,I bought a broken ,old 1941 10" x36" South Bend Navy Signal Corps lathe from a junior high shop.The quick change lever was broke,a couple gears were broke,half nut and screws were wore out.$400,wi8th a Cincinnati polishing lathe for ballast.
Found precision grade ground lead screws and new half nuts.Fixed what was brokeTotal diassembly,clean,new epoxy paint and some love.Tune the headstock sleeve shim situation.Got new flat belt.It already had a taper attachment .Bought a new good 3 jaw.Yuasa's version of an Aloris toolpost.Fond a 5C taper and a guy who sold the 5C drawbar.A buddy had spent his inhertance on a brand new Bridgeport.He did the lathe overhaul and it sits in his shop.
Over the last 30 years that lathe has done one whole lot of good work.
As has been mentioned,at a 10 in swing is when you usually get a spindle thru hole for a 5C collet drawbar(1 3/8 or so).That is ,for me,a requirement.
Some Logan's are similar.

Sure,we think it would be nice to have a Monarch.He and I have both found Monarchs rather special.We have used them.
If you can find a Harrison 10" in good shape,I like them.They work well with a phase converter.
The 10 in Clausing was pretty good,but the variable speed drive wears out,and then is troublesome.Rebuilt,it may be OK.

You might pretend you bought a brand,and it broke.Try to find spares and service.If you can,good!!! If you cannot,Hmmmm?
I have used some older Jet and Powermatic lathes,and I was underwhelmed.

April 14, 2010, 02:10 AM
Grizzly|\asian lathes are the tools that are adequate to get the gun tinkering job done, and alot of people seem to like them.

From a machinist standpoint (I was one for years before this engineering schooling) the homeshop priced machines are absolute trash. The gear head lathes while functional, leave alot to be desired as far as the gears themselves are sometimes crap (hard to engage another speed). The apron gears on any low cost imported are weak pieces of crap, I've fixed many that were wore down/stripped. Some have a very complex electrical system made with low grade components, and are complex to trouble shoot (il admit im no electrician).

Like I said there's a good chance that it will do the job for you, as far as parts are concerned, well come models get discontinued and good luck getting parts for those.

If you want a machine thats simple, reliable with good quality components, I REALLY recommend a used machine of domestic manufacture. Some names to look for are clausing, colchester (not really domestic its made in england), southbend, logan, delta rockwell and the heavy duty modern Atlas (not the toy ones).

There are good quality imports from asia, new ones are expensive but usd names to look for are Mazak, Mori Seki and Kingston.

Theres 2 basic styles of lathes, your belt drive and gearhead, il explain the differences.

Belt drive: Very simple, shaft with a step pulley between 2 bearings (and a thrust bearing) your high speeds are direct off the pulley and low speeds are from the back gear. This whole setup is easy to repair and service. Most of the old domestic lathes go off of this drive. Cons are you most likely wont get the fastest speeds, but it doesnt really matter.

Gearhead: Complex as hell, the bigger/modern domestic and asian lathes use this. Pop the lid on a gear head and think real hard about how your going to get a gear out of there if it craps out on you, or how youl go about replacing a bearing. Saves you from having to swap over belts, and alot the the gearheads have automatic oiling (the tubes get crushed easily). The pros here are you can get a good speed out of them usually (not that 2500 rpm is needed anyways)

Size of your machine will dictate the most, the bigger the spindle bore you can get the better (within reason, dont go buying an oil country lathe:D). Size seems to dictate price for used machinery as well, the bigger it is the cheaper it is, and the more of a PITA to move.

But hey I use a teeny tiny myford super 7 (another damn import englishmen lathe) for my gun tinkering (I cant rechamber full size rifle barrels, but for little carbines with a steady rest I pull it off), and pistols is a kinch. There a veeeeeeeeeeeeery nicely done up machine and depending on your needs and if you can find a used one in your area thats reasonably prices (not likely) it may fill your needs, if your gunsmithing for a living forget about it, this things for playin, not making money.

Anything made by Jet is absolute garbage, if your looking for a boat anchor in 2 years buy a Jet.

Purchasing used: If your on the east coast were there has been some heavy industry, craigslist is pretty good, as is the buy and sell/want adds. Some auctions come up and there may be something good there. If your in the west, good luck, chances are youl have to truck your toy to you and those that are available tend to to ridiculously priced. And watch out for that, people who want a kings ransom for there tinker toy.

April 14, 2010, 11:27 AM
The new SB made is China is a Jet/Grizzly/GMC/Harrison/Clausing/Precision Matthews/Sharp/Birmingham/Enco/Harbor Freight/Smithy/MSC/Bernardo/Rong Fu/ etc clone.

The new South Bend lathe is no more an American design than it is the man in the moon.

My 2009 Precision Matthews 12x36 has 80% interchangeable small parts with my brother's 1999 Jet 13x40.

The really expensive aircraft or medical electronic boxes I design or the really expensive electronic test instruments my wife designs may be American designs, but are being built in China by Jabil. The cheap crap car electronics my son is designing are built in China.

The new Chinese lathe I bought in 2009 with DRO and a foot brake, delivered to my door, did not cost that much more than is costs to SHIP an old lathe bought on EBAY.

What does it all mean?
1) There are a billion Chinese with higher IQs than American workers that would love to move from the sustenance agricultural jobs to the manufacturing sector. That cheap, intelligent, and motivated work force is going to make our manual lathes for us from cast iron for the foreseeable future.
2) Chinese are hell to negotiate with. You must have an American importer quality control department and warranty between you and dealing with Chinese businessmen.

April 14, 2010, 03:16 PM
I'd love to have an old Cincinnati engine lathe. I learned to cut my teeth so to speak on one of those. It was about 50 years old when I started to running it. We made parts for freight trains, so those machines took a real beating, and kept on ticking.

April 14, 2010, 06:42 PM
I don't mind buying used to save a buck, but don't want junk either. Where should I shop -- the local ads, eBay, or is there a new model that is cheap but good?

No such animal only way youl get good and cheap is if you purchase a used one and fix it up (its not to big of a job if the beds in good shape).

A quality machine tool is an investment, its not like going to walmart to buy a bag of socks.

Alex Johnson
April 14, 2010, 10:18 PM
There is a world of difference in the quality of the lower price Asian lathes and the higher priced models. If you have $3000 to spend Grizzly's gunsmith lathe would be hard to beat. Yes you can find older American lathes cheaper than that and sometimes you can get a really good one (I have a 1960's 10" Delta in my basement that came loaded with all the accessories for under $1000), but you have to have some luck and some knowledge to pull this off. I've heard a lot of folks knock the Asian lathes and many have never even turned one on, I've bought several Asian lathes and mills for the university where I teach and have found them to be a good bargain. If it was me I would stick to known vendors like Grizzly, Enco, and places that deal with Jet tools. Generally if there are problems with the machine the issues surface within the first year while the machine is under warranty, after that problems generally are rare.

April 14, 2010, 10:29 PM
Jet is absolute garbage and not fit for serious machining or any any use beyond the once a month hobbiest, but thats just my opinion (and I've turned on an asian machine or two)

3000$ lathe is alot like a 3000 dollar car

But thats just my biased opinion

April 15, 2010, 11:41 PM
Her is more to consider.If I may use our member Longrifles for an example,he is setting up a serious shop with great capabilities.To make money these days producing something may take good CNC equiptment.
It is also possible,if you have a firearms line that requires some CNC work,you farm those parts out.Some very top rifle makers have a fairly modest shop,and make the most of what they have without a lot of capital investment.
Long ago I met a gentleman named Ron Long.He was a world class shooter and also had a shop which produced some Scheutzen and muzzleloader products.My Hawkin has a Long lock and double set trigger.His lathe was the same type I ran a lot,an older Clausing 10 in variable drive .They are a handy,fast little light duty lathe,but the drives wear out.Sheeve pulleys that sort of hang on an unsupported shaft.
In the days of many gunsmiths and milsurp custom rifles,the sort of Southbend 10x36 class lathe was a fine tool that got the job done.I expect Harry Pope and PO Ackley and names like Fischer and Beisen could do just fine with that class of lathe.
Do-All had a line,and A Bridgeport EZ-turn was a basic CNC.
The gap bed thing annoys me.I'm not making salad bowls and these little lathes aren't swinging a 300 lb chunk of 16" diameter.
I would look for two shafts coming out of the gearbox,one for feeds and another for threading.Be sure it says "Hardened gears" and Hardened ways.I have seen real problems in the older Jet and powermatic lathes in that the gears were soft and they just displaced the gear geometry.
An important part of smithing is threading.It would be nice if you could cut some threads and see how the threading features work.Some do not accurately repeat leads,etc..
An old,light lathe is likely to have some tailstock alignment problems.Things just wear different on the ways.Some of it is tunable,an indicator in the chuck spun in the tailstock taper ,or around the tailstoch spindle can be revealing.Remember,it starts holes,and drives drills and reamers.If you involve your tailstock in chambering,and it is a little funny,so is the chamber(ask me how I know,and why I have a floating reamer holder!!)

Good Luck!!I hope you find a good one.These tough times may cause some bargains to be on the market.
Feel it.I wouldn't buy one I couldn't feel.

April 16, 2010, 06:20 AM
I'm no gunsmith nor do I play one on TV. But a quick search on eBay found this:

I don't know anything other than what's in the eBay posting.
I don't know where you're at, but this caught my eye in the posting:

April 16, 2010, 09:19 AM
Back about 1980 or so I bought a Jet 12 X 36 lathe, 1 1/2 hole in the spendal. Its still working to day.

I'm not a machinest, nor a gun smith, but I've made sever rifles on mine. Some dern good target rifles too. Not to mention other non gun related parts around the shop. Got a Jet 16 Mill/Drill about the same time. That was one handy investment.

Yeah I know there are much better machines out there, and If I was going to open up a Machine or Gunshop I'd probably get better machines. But I'm not, I do have several gun projects lined up, I believe these old machines will suite me fine.

CNC machines would be nice, but I'm not smart enough to run one. I'm not in productions.

With any machine, old use, import or domestic, its the set up, measurements and such that make the project.

April 16, 2010, 10:12 AM
LaBlond I have two of them.
one is a 16x72 Setup with collets.
The second 12x56 I used for smithing before my stroke.
If they will not let you try the machine before you buy, walk a way.


April 16, 2010, 03:38 PM
The best finish work also comes out better on a lath with a 3-phase motor.

Single phase 120 and 240 V motors just do not produce as smooth a cut.

If you do not have access to 3-phase to run the lathe, a variable frequency drive running from single phase 240 V provides an excellent source of 'created' 3-phase even if you do not need the VFD function.

VFDs have limits when operated from 240 V single phase, but anything short of full industrial cuts should be fine.

April 17, 2010, 11:02 AM
On some Chineese made machinery, green wire has been known to be used as a "hot" wire. For your own saftey, please pay attention to the wiring. Get a professional electrician if you need help.

April 18, 2010, 10:26 PM
Single phase 120 and 240 V motors just do not produce as smooth a cut.

I've spent many hours turning with a single phase motored lathe. No offense intended, there are plenty of good reasons to want three phase, all 6 of my lathes now are three phase, but surface finish isn't a reason I'd think of.

If you have single phase power then a single phase lathe motor is superior, and the only reason I know of to get a phase converter is if you have a three phase motor and no three phase power. Even then the output power is not true balanced three phase. Bad gear geometry or lack of rigidity would be a reasonable worry for surface finish, not the phase of the motor. :)

April 19, 2010, 11:24 AM
I thought about this some more,and am taking a step back to reconsider..
I still advocate the class of light industrial lathes I mentioned,but when kraigwy speaks,I listen.He has a point.
The experience I had with the Jet, and Powermatic I mentioned was at a university engineering research center.Many people ran those lathes,of varying degree of experience,and they saw some hard use.In a shop that pays the bills machinining,you would hope that machine is running at least 100 hours a month.
How many folks run their gunsmithing lathe more the 100 hours a year?
If you start with a decent,solid ,well made machine,you are the only guy running it,and you take reasonable care of it,a new Asian machine should probably give a lifetime of good service.It does not come with a worn bed and half-nuts.I don't know that we can buy South Bend or Harrison parts.
And,I agree it is more the fellow running the machine.

April 19, 2010, 05:13 PM
Bad gear geometry or lack of rigidity would be a reasonable worry for surface finish, not the phase of the motor.

Single phase motors all rely on momentum to complete every single turn.
Even capacitor run motors are well known for not running as smoothly as a 3-phase motor.

Put some work from a single phase lath under a microscope.

I actually converted a single lath to 3-phase using a VFD, and checked the surface before and after.

The single phase had a noticeable pattern that was not present in the sa,e lath using a 3-phase motor.

VFDs produce 3-phase power as good as the stuff from the POCO.

A rotary phase converter generating the 'third phase' top use with 120/240 V single phase has always produced dirty power.

A full up motor generator 3-phase converter produces clean power, but is larger and costs more than the easily found rotary phase converters.

April 20, 2010, 11:04 AM

Here is a video of a Precision Matthews PM1236, like mine, cutting steel.


Freight: FREE
Total: Price: $2995.00

That is the 4th lathe I have bought for gunsmithing in 10 years.

Alex Johnson
April 21, 2010, 09:34 PM
I wouldn't worry about getting into CNC until you had some time on a manual machine first. The kind of work that you will do in gunsmithing will more commonly be better served with a good quality manual machine. Good CNC machines have gotten cheaper; however, none of them are really all that simple to operate and require a considerable investment in time to become good with. You also need to be computer savy and have a good CAD/CAM package to really make them shine.

I still say that a good Asian lathe is a better investment than a worn out American brand.